Dawn Kasper, Claim or Deconstructing Acconci (working titles), Emma Gray HQ, Culver City, February 15, 2011

Dawn Kasper performing Claim

As one of her current lines of inquiry, Dawn Kasper is trying on personas and/or works by other performers. A few weeks ago, she attempted to do Spaulding Gray’s table monologue shtick at Highways. Last Tuesday night, in a private performance at Emma Gray HQ, she inhabited Vito Acconci’s notorious Claim.

Being familiar with Kasper’s practice, I am guessing that she chose these particular works because they are iconic pieces that specifically evolved out of the personalities of the artists. They are not, for example, scripts that were written for anyone to perform, or standardized tests of endurance as Marina Abramović’s works sometimes end up being. Both Gray’s monologues and Acconci’s Claim are idiosyncratic performances in which the artists attempt to work out aspects of their own psyches. Hence, they pose an inherent challenge and discomfort to anyone trying to remake them, and if anything fuels Kasper’s work, it’s discomfort.

Vito Acconci, still from Claim Excerpts, 1971

In 1971, Vito Acconci sat blindfolded in a basement at the bottom of a long flight of stairs, armed with steel pipes and a crowbar. For three hours, he talked to himself about being alone in the basement, and threatened any potential visitors by swinging at them with his weapons. Upstairs, his actions and rantings were captured on a video feed to the audience. The work, which exists today as an hour-long video called Claim Excerpts, is seen as a vivid evocation of the subterranean regions of the artist’s mind, and the herculean effort he must make to convince himself and others of his vision.

For Kasper’s performance, there was no separation of artist and audience, no basement or video feed. The performance took place inside of the tiny, angular space that is EGHQ, and about 10 of us were invited to be in it with her. Kasper sat in a chair at the far corner, bathed in the light of 10 candles. She was blindfolded, wearing gloves, holding a metal pipe in one hand and a crowbar in the other. The space was otherwise completely dark and empty.

When we entered the space, Kasper was already holding her tools up, rocking back and forth and murmuring to herself. She did this for the next 20 minutes or so, during which time she attempted, as Acconci did, to claim the space around her and to drive out outsiders. At the same time however, Kasper struggled to both fit into and critique Acconci’s ideas and actions, to re-negotiate the terms of his concept, to re-contextualize this 40-year-old performance for today, and to interrogate her own performance as it was happening. Inevitably, bits of her own history/personality spilled out even as she grappled with Acconci’s. Following are some snippets of monologue that I wrote down, not necessarily in the order or exactly how they were spoken, but hopefully they give a sense of her process:

“Claim, claim, claim! I claim this space! I want to be aggressive, I want to be convincing, I want to claim this space… I am alone in this space… but I don’t really want this space… but I do. I will kill you if you come closer! But I don’t want to kill anyone… except for maybe my mother. I want to mean this. But you know, I think about Vito and his times… maybe we can do things differently now? I can’t believe he did this for three hours… things are so different today… I’m not very convincing… I’m too honest. I want to be alone in this basement and I don’t want anyone near me! No, I don’t want to be alone…”

At one point, while playing around with her metal pipe, the inside of it slid out and she wound up with two pipes in her hand. Maybe coincidentally, this seemed to change her mood and her approach. She started talking about claiming the space with her own identity—“I don’t want to be him, I am a woman, I am claiming my own space, my own honesty.” Then she slipped into a long period of silence, during which it almost felt like she was owning the space more than when she was talking about owning it.

She came out of it presently and talked some more—she wanted to destroy the word “claim”—she wished there was a piñata with candy in front of her, because that would make more sense—she wondered if her performance had failed—she wondered if this piece was really about fear of intimacy, or isolation being a false sense of freedom—she mused about how much scarier it would be if there was only one audience member present—she described the process Acconci went through during his three hours and compared it to her own.

Kasper spent the last 10 minutes struggling to find a way out of the performance. First she took her gloves off, thinking that would end things, but then she found that with the blindfold still on, she was still in an “illusionary” state, and she didn’t want that to end. She questioned what she should do next, and asked us what we would do—no one ventured an answer. Finally, she found her way out by keeping the blindfold on and blowing out the candles, one by one.

This performance was fascinating because it seemed like Kasper was trying to create a performance within a performance—to claim her own space within Acconci’s Claim. The psychodynamics were so vivid that it was like watching an intense wrestling match between the two artists. When she “sparred” with Gray, there seemed to be a point where she said “fuck it” and tossed the other artist off her completely. With Acconci, it was a much closer and more grueling ordeal.

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